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September 21, 2019

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Turbulent four years coming to end for Gov. Jim Gibbons

Governor Jim Gibbons

Edward Lawrence, left, of Channel 8 News interviews Gov. Jim Gibbons about renewable energy during the dedication ceremony for Sempra Energy's new El Dorado Energy Solar facility January 22. Launch slideshow »
Robin Reedy

Robin Reedy

On Monday, Gov. Jim Gibbons will conclude what might be the roughest four-year term a Nevada politician has endured who didn’t die or get indicted.

It began with pre-election accusations of assault on a cocktail waitress and ended with being thrown from a horse, breaking his pelvis and going through a painful recovery.

In between was a raft of equally embarrassing and painful moments: ethics investigations; inept appointments; getting chased by the media during outings with women other than his wife; a messy and public divorce; a vitriolic relationship with lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat; accusations he spent little time working (Some noted, for example, the horse accident occurred during work hours — 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.); and a loss in June’s Republican primary, the first by an incumbent governor in the 100-year history of state party elections.

Gibbons’ tenure won’t soon be forgotten. How it will be remembered, however, will likely hinge on the answer to this question: Was Gibbons a victim of bad times or his own actions?

• • •

Gibbons has eschewed exit interviews, allowing his few remaining allies to try to burnish his legacy.

“He’s said it’s the hardest job he’s ever had,” Chief of Staff Robin Reedy said. “But there are parts of it he’s enjoyed, helping tackle the problems of the state.”

She said public perception of Gibbons has been shaped by unsympathetic media. “The things he has been accused of have never been validated,” she said.

Yet Reedy acknowledged, “The past four years have not been the best of his life.”

One reason: The demands of the job and the public’s interest in the state’s CEO clashed with Gibbons’ desire for privacy.

Howard Weiss, a Reno RV dealership owner and Gibbons’ confidant, said “Jim doesn’t like for his personal life to be an open book. It was difficult for him.”

That said, “Gibbons is very comfortable. He’s at peace with himself,” Weiss said.

The Gibbons administration wasn’t without its accomplishments, and circumstances beyond his or anyone else’s control — foremost the worst recession in state history — helped make his four years in office so rocky.

“He was working from one of the worst decks of cards,” Democratic lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis said.

Gibbons’ response to the recession opened a rift between him and Democratic lawmakers.

He ordered state agencies to prepare for deep budget cuts. Democrats countered by accusing him of exaggerating the deficit to push his small-government philosophy. With CityCenter and other major casinos under construction on the Strip, the downturn would soon draw to a close, optimists said.

Gibbons and his budget team ended up being right. They were the most pessimistic (although, it should be noted, not pessimistic enough) of the state budget players.

Reedy said Gibbons will be remembered for keeping his vow not to raise taxes amid the state’s fiscal turmoil — a rare politician who held fast to what he promised.

Robert Uithoven, Gibbons’ former campaign manager, said that in addition to the recession, Gibbons was thwarted by a Legislature under Democratic control, particularly during the 2009 session when lawmakers sought tax increases to balance the budget.

“He might be more conservative than any governor we had in modern times, but the Legislature was more liberal,” Uithoven said.

Gibbons has said his anti-tax stance reduced the size of the tax increase passed by Republican and Democratic legislators over his veto.

However, it was then-Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and other Senate Republicans, not Gibbons, who dictated the terms of that deal. They knew Democrats needed votes to pass the tax increase and override the governor’s veto.

Perhaps Gibbons’ greatest legacy, and one that’s often overlooked, is the Spending and Government Efficiency Commission, which brought together Democratic and Republican leaders from the private sector to study and recommend government reforms. But Gibbons’ inability to get the SAGE recommendations passed by the Legislature is emblematic of his shortcomings.

Bruce James, commission chairman, praised Gibbons’ work with the panel, adding that many issues raised by the group — such as creating a sunset commission that periodically reviews the effectiveness of state programs and agencies — should be evaluated by future leaders.

“Our mission was to forward recommendations to the governor. It was the governor’s job to follow through and have them implemented,” James said.

That push would have come during the 2009 Legislature, a nadir for Gibbons both professionally and personally.

In the midst of his divorce from first lady Dawn Gibbons, the governor turned over the detail work on the budget to senior staff, his longtime political consultant Jim Denton and Monte Miller, a Las Vegas businessman and political fundraiser. After signing off on their plan, which included a controversial 37 percent cut in higher education spending, he passed it along to the Legislature and did little else to try to get it passed or push for the SAGE recommendations.

Some saw it as a failure to lead.

“The governor has the bully pulpit, he failed to use that bully pulpit,” said one former adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If you do something as massive as the SAGE Commission, you issue a report on saving state government, you can’t expect to leave it out there, hope it happens by itself.”

• • •

Even Gibbons’ allies acknowledge that his personal life interfered with his ability to govern.

In early 2008, he filed for divorce. Gibbons has never explained why he did so in the middle of his term, when his marriage had been strained for years, according to divorce filings.

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Nevada First Lady Dawn Gibbons confers with her attorney, Cal Dunlap, before a court hearing in Reno on Monday, Dec. 28, 2009, on the settlement of her divorce from Gov. Jim Gibbons. The divorce trial was due to start Monday morning just as the settlement was made.

Close advisers said they counseled against it. And it proved to be an insurmountable distraction.

Dawn Gibbons appeared caught off guard by the filing. She fought back by hiring a bulldog attorney who accused Gibbons of having affairs and an “obsession” with another woman.

“The governor took the high road” by not engaging in back-and-forth accusations with Dawn Gibbons, Reedy said. “I think that’s admirable behavior.”

The Reno Gazette-Journal reported the governor had exchanged hundreds of text messages with a woman using his state cell phone.

According to former senior staff, Gibbons became more withdrawn as the divorce dragged on.

By early 2009, as the Legislature convened, he was rarely seen in the Capitol.

“Anyone would have to be distracted” by the divorce, Weiss said. “I think the distraction came, not because of what he was going through, but the way media put it out there. That’s the part that upset Jim very much … It made the front page of the newspaper.”

Supporters said Gibbons’ performance during February’s special session proves that without the distraction of a divorce, he could have been a more engaged governor.

During the session, called to bridge another budget deficit, Gibbons negotiated with lawmakers and compromised on fees, winning begrudging plaudits from legislative foes.

“If Jim Gibbons from January 2007 had behaved the way he did at the last special session, you may have been writing a different story,” Vassiliadis said.

But by then it was too late.

Click to enlarge photo

Former federal judge and gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval celebrates his victory over incumbent Gov. Jim Gibbons in the party primary at the Garden Shop Nursery in Reno on Tuesday, June, 8, 2010. Standing by during his acceptance speech is his wife, Kathleen, and children, James, Maddie, and Marisa.

Brian Sandoval, a former attorney general and Republican, had resigned from the federal bench to run for governor. And the Republican base and the establishment who helped get Gibbons elected had abandoned him.

Still, the former fighter pilot, veteran of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, decided to fly solo, running for re-election with an inexperienced campaign staff and virtually no resources.

Gibbons got 27 percent of the vote to Sandoval’s 55 percent.

• • •

So how will history remember Gibbons?

James said he should be remembered as a governor who put his back into his work even though things didn’t always work out.

“If Jim Gibbons fell short, well, nobody tried harder than him,” he said. “He tried his best. He’s a true Nevadan.”

Uithoven, who was quickly ousted from Gibbons’ inner circle after his election in 2006, also remains a defender.

He said Gibbons suffered because he couldn’t fake friendships or do the disingenuous backslapping required of politicians, not because of his policy positions. He noted that in the 2010 governor’s race, Sandoval and Rory Reid, the Democratic nominee, both ran on platforms of conservative education reforms and a promise not to raise taxes — the same platform that Gibbons ran on in 2006.

Others, however, don’t read Gibbons’ lack of alliances and inability to build consensus so kindly.

Historian Guy Rocha, a former state archivist, said Gibbons will be remembered as the worst governor in state history, one of the few one-term governors and the first incumbent governor to lose a primary.

“He failed to be a leader,” Rocha said. “He was not a consensus builder.”

Jim Rogers, a Republican who served as chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, said the poor economy should not be used to absolve Gibbons of his failure to lead. Rogers carried on a caustic back-and-forth with the governor over proposed cuts to the state’s colleges and universities.

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Jim Rogers

“First of all, he never went to work. Secondly, he had no leadership qualities,” he said. “You don’t get judged well for watching the Titanic sink.”

Vassiliadis said what his supporters call a refusal to play political games is really a failure to build connections beyond his inner circle, including with community and legislative leaders and ultimately voters.

“The governor had a difficult time managing his way through crises mainly because he has difficulty building relationships,” said Vassiliadis, who represents gaming and mining interests, among others. “He isolated himself. He never built a core of relationships. He became rather marginalized.”

Since his accident, Gibbons has been even more reclusive.

When the children lined up at the Governor’s Mansion to trick-or-treat on Halloween, he stayed inside. He skipped the ceremonial Christmas tree lighting at the Capitol. And for his final executive board meeting, he participated by phone from the mansion.

He has given Sandoval’s transition team access to his senior staff and handed the budget to the incoming governor, but has refused to meet the governor-elect.

Gibbons will skip Sandoval’s inauguration Monday. He will be undergoing a medical procedure.

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